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Land and Resources

San Pablo River, Darien jungle, Eastern Pacific hurricanes, Gatun Lake, Azuero Peninsula

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Located at the juncture of Central and South America, Panama forms a land bridge between the two continents. Panama lies within the tropics, and about one-third its area is covered with rain forest. The rest has been converted to farmland and pastures or lies in the semiarid Azuero Peninsula. Panama’s climate is warm and humid, moderated by the two oceans that bathe its 2,490 km (1,547 mi) of coastline. Along each coast are low-lying areas, but inland are mountains that divide the country into north- and south-facing slopes.

Seen from above, Panama has the shape of a reclining S and occupies 75,517 sq km (29,157 sq mi) of land. In addition, Panama claims 200 nautical miles (370 km/230 mi) of territorial waters along its shores. The country is bounded on the north by the Caribbean Sea, on the east by Colombia, on the south by the Pacific Ocean, and on the west by Costa Rica. At its widest point it stretches 650 km (400 mi) from west to east, but at its narrowest, near the roughly north-south route of the Panama Canal, it measures only 48 km (30 mi).

Rivers and Lakes

Panama has several important rivers. The Chagres drains a watershed of 326,000 hectares (806,000 acres) north of Panama City and flows into the Caribbean just west of Colon. The Chagres has been dammed in two places: in Gatun, to create a lake for the Panama Canal, and upriver in Alajuela, for water storage and hydroelectric power. Gatun Lake, one of the largest artificial reservoirs in the world, covers 43,000 hectares (106,000 acres) and allows ships to transit the canal at an elevation of 26 m (85 ft) above sea level.

Panama’s largest river, the Tuira, flows south into the Gulf of San Miguel, draining much of the Darien region. The San Pablo River in the south central portion of the country drains into the Montijo Gulf. The Chepo River, which flows southwest into the Pacific near Panama City, has been dammed to create Lake Bayano, an important hydroelectric power source. None of Panama’s rivers are navigable by deep-draft ships.


Most of Panama has a hot and humid tropical climate, with cooler temperatures in higher elevations. Prevailing winds carry moisture from the Caribbean Sea to the northern coast, making it wetter than the Pacific side. The northern slopes of the mountains receive an average of 2,970 mm (117 in) of rain a year, most during the wet season from May to December. Pacific winds bring drier air to the southern coast, which receives up to 1,650 mm (65 in) a year. The Azuero Peninsula is the driest region. Panama lies outside the paths of Caribbean and Eastern Pacific hurricanes. The average temperatures in coastal areas are 23° to 27°C (73° to 81°F); in higher elevations they average about 19°C (66°F).

Plant and Animal Life

Panama’s Darien jungle is the largest tropical rain forest in the Western Hemisphere outside the Amazon Basin. The entire north coast of Panama is densely forested and contains more than 2,000 species of tropical plants. This habitat also supports a wide array of animals common to Central and South America, including ocelots, sloths, armadillos, pumas, anteaters, spider and howler monkeys, deer, caimans, crocodiles, and many snakes. It has one of the most diverse populations of birds in the world, ranging from colorful tropical species to long-distance migrating birds. Due to its unique location, Panama has several animal species found nowhere else, such as the golden tree frog and giant tree sloth. In populated areas, however, most of the native animals have been hunted or driven out.

Natural Resources

Panamanians regard their country’s location and narrow geography as its most valuable asset, making it appropriate for rail, road, pipeline, and canal crossings. Other natural resources include arable land (7 percent of the territory is regularly farmed), grazing lands, and forests (57 percent of land area). Forested lands yield significant exports of hardwood logs. Panama has manganese and iron-ore deposits, the world’s ninth largest reserves of copper ore, and working gold mines. Its rich fish catch in the Pacific (especially for prawn and shrimp) is being supplemented with shrimp farming in ponds.

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